In his lifetime, Donne (1571–1632) only published a few of his written works, viewing print as corrupt and common. He preferred to circulate his texts in manuscript form to a select group of friends and patrons. They shared and hand-copied the poems into their own private verse collections, and these were used as the basis for this printed edition.
Donne’s poems: published or censored
The book showcases Donne’s dazzling range of poetic themes and styles, from works of religious devotion to intellectual wit, cynicism and sexual passion. There are 12 of his Holy Sonnets, as well as Elegies, Satires and a number of famous verses such as ‘The Flea’ and ‘The Sun Rising’ which were later called Songs and Sonnets.
Strikingly, however, one famous verse is absent from this collection. The licenser refused to publish Donne’s ‘Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed’ with its erotic description of a woman undressing. It was not until 1669 that the racy, scandalous poem was printed for the first time.
What is special about this copy?
This copy of Donne’s Poems appears to have been owned by the most elite of readers. It is bound in red leather, with the royal arms in gold leaf, and a note suggesting that it belonged to King Charles I, who reigned from 1625 to 1649.
An engraving of the poet, with a beard and classical robes, has been inserted into this copy. It is based on a painting made in 1622, just before Donne became Dean of St Paul’s. Donne would have been 49 at the time (although the Latin text under the engraving mistakenly says he was 59).
Which poems are digitised here?
- ‘As due by many titles’ (p. 32)
- ‘O my black soul!’ (p. 33)
- ‘This is my play’s last scene’ (p. 33)
- ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’ (pp. 33–4)
- ‘If poisonous minerals’ (p. 35)
- ‘Death be not proud’ (pp. 35–6)
- ‘Spit in my face, you Jews’ (p. 36)
- ‘The Apparition’ (p. 191)
- ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ (pp. 193–94, but marked as p. 164)
- ‘The Good Morrow’ (p. 195, but marked as p. 165)
- Song, ‘Go and catch a falling star’ (pp. 196–97)
- ‘Woman’s Constancy’ (pp. 197–98, but marked as p. 168)
- ‘The Sun Rising’ (pp. 199–200, but marked as p. 169–200)
- ‘The Canonization’ (pp. 202–04)
- ‘Air and Angels’ (pp. 211–12)
- ‘The Anniversary’ (pp. 213–14)
- Twicknam Garden (pp. 218–19)
- ‘The Flea’ (pp. 230–31)
- ‘The Relic’ (pp. 289–90)
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Renaissance writers, Shakespeare’s life and world, Elizabethan England
Andrew Dickson follows the progress of the Renaissance through Europe, and examines the educational, religious, artistic and geographical developments that shaped culture during the period.
- Article by:
- Michael Donkor
- Renaissance writers, Language, word play and text, Poetry
Michael Donkor explains what makes John Donne a metaphysical poet, and looks at the creative and distinctive ways in which Donne used metaphysical techniques.
- Article by:
- Toby Litt
- Renaissance writers, Poetry
Toby Litt shows how Donne creates a mischievous relationship with his readers, as the poem builds energy and plays around with time and space.